Earlier this week, after a restless night up with a teething toddler, after waking at 5:00 am to feed the toddler, again, and get in a run before the rest of the house awoke, after making breakfast for everyone and cleaning up, after homeschooling my older two while trying to keep the youngest from climbing on top of every piece of furniture, after feeding more snacks, after herding my children out the door, we headed outside for a much needed break and breath of fresh air. I felt sweet relief as the long, dewey grass poked up between my toes, wild and abundant and rapidly growing this time of year. Meandering to my mailbox, I reached in and found a birthday card for my husband, and beneath it, a single sheet of notebook paper folded in half. Unfolding the paper, curious at the lack of envelope, I was surprised to find these words sprawled across the top:
I was immediately angry and annoyed, defensive. How could someone we call a neighbor leave such an incriminating and passive-aggressive note? Sure, things in our yard had gotten a little scraggly – too much rain and sun, combined with some travels that interrupted our usual mowing routine gave way to some overgrowth – but it wasn’t that bad.
But equally, I was filled with a deep sense of shame. We can’t keep up, we can’t stay on top of everything that needs to be done in this phase of life, and now someone has very blatantly pointed that out. That old familiar feeling crept in reminding me that no matter how hard we try, it will never be good enough. I felt found out, called out.
Because we are trying. We’re trying so hard, all the time. We’re trying to keep up with the million tasks that require our time and energy and attention in this extremely overburdened and under-resourced season of life. And if that so-called neighbor had bothered to part those long blades of grass and take a peek, they might see. They might see us chasing our three kids through the yard as they run in different directions. They might see us out grilling one of the seemingly endless meals that we make every day. They might see how we run back and forth into the house, barely able to sit and eat our own food. They might see the mess that’s scattered about after every activity our kids do – bikes and bubbles and sidewalk chalk and nature explorations and snacks – and how we work to drag all the things back to their rightful place again and again. They might see us spread a blanket on that overgrown lawn as we read and teach our children about the world, and sometimes that takes priority. They might see us unloading countless bags of groceries or reloading the countless supplies necessary for a simple outing as a family.
Equally important, though, is what they don’t see. They don’t see the list a mile long of the improvements we want to make to our house or the yard work we want to get done, but just can’t ever seem to find the time or energy in the wake of the tasks that have to take precedent. They don’t see how we beg and barter with the older kids to watch the baby so that we can try to get the yard mowed, because it turns out its not safe to have a toddler out running around while blades are spinning on a large moving vehicle, but there’s only so much that a five-year-old and seven-year-old can do. They don’t see how I bend down to pull weeds from the flower beds, only to be pulled to some urgent matter a moment later. They don’t see how we’ve spent the last three-and-a-half years since moving here living off of an extremely limited single income, and we just don’t have the excess to hire someone to do our yard work. They don’t see how we just need a little help, and that words, even with the best intentions, can be hurtful.
So when I came back to that note later, once my anger and shame had settled, all I felt was sad. I was sad that we didn’t have a greater sense of community among our neighbors. That I don’t feel like I have someone I can borrow a cup of sugar from, much less lean on for more substantial support. When we moved in, no one came over to welcome us to the neighborhood, to help us feel at home. And in the years since then, there have only been a couple of neighbors who have spoken more than a handful of words to us.
Though we’ve had some great neighbors in the past, and I’m not trying to knock my neighborhood as a whole, I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. It seems that it’s becoming increasingly rare to really know and care for your neighbors. With each passing year, with each divisive political or social issue, community breaks down further. The village was already long gone, but with each of our busy lives and online worlds and closed mindsets, we cocoon ourselves in an ever-tighter cloak of individualism. And I think it’s suffocating us as a society.
There we stand, alone. An island in a sea of overgrown grass.
When you see someone who’s yard looks a bit scraggly, I promise the last thing they need is your judgement. They don’t need your reminders to keep up and buck up. They likely have a reason their yard looks that way, whether by circumstance or even by choice (because un-mowed yards provide environmental benefits, especially this time of year*). And as any parent worth their salt can attest, trying to get someone to meet your standards through guilt and shame and your own projection of “pride” is a recipe for disaster. Both ineffective in the long run and instantly severing connection and camaraderie.
How about instead, you offer to help? Ask if you can mow their grass for them. Offer to watch their kids so they have time to do it themselves. Bring them a meal to take something off their overloaded plate. Show you care by asking if they’re doing ok or if they need anything. Or, as mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Extending a hand, or at the very least, grace, is one step in the right direction of building a stronger community. It nourishes a better neighborhood that is more valuable than any one perfectly pruned yard. Each of us has a story we’re living, that may not be so apparent based on outside appearances. And until we stop passing judgement and start getting curious about what our neighbors are walking through, or better yet, make the effort to walk alongside them, it doesn’t matter how beautiful our yard may look, we’ll still stand alone.
* We’ve always tried to wait a little longer on mowing in early spring when the first flowers spread through our yard to allow pollinators to benefit from these necessary resources. It was only after this friendly note that I discovered the No Mow May initiative. My goal is to move towards a more intentional pollinator habitat that means less mowing and more biodiversity.